I’m Malcolm Noble; I was born in Nottingham (1951), but spent most of my youth in Hampshire. As a young man I served in the Portsmouth Police, which loosely provides a background for my crime fiction. I now live in Market Harborough where I help in my wife’s second-hand bookshop.
I have written eight Timberdick Mysteries, mostly set in the 1960s but with two prequels (1947 and ’37). My latest book - Peggy Pinch, Policeman’s Wife – is the first of a spin-off series. This murder story is set in an English village in 1926. The other books are set in the backstreets of a busy seaport. At the moment, I am working on another episode of the original series, but progress is slow.
How long does it usually take you to write a book, from the original idea to finishing writing it?
Generally, I am working on two or three storylines during October-December. I have established a discipline of deciding, during the week between Christmas and New Year, which book I will concentrate on. By that time, I probably have 15,000 words in notes. I usually spend four months converting those notes into a draft, which I then revise for a couple of months. During the composing stage, I set myself a target of 639 words a day (because I like the sound of the figure) but of course progress is uneven.
Do you have a certain routine you have for writing? ie You listen to music, sit in a certain chair?
I do most of my creative stuff in my wife’s bookshop (or the courtyard outside). I compose in my head, reciting each passage over and over until I am satisfied it is word perfect. Then I scribble it down, usually on brown paper bags from the shop or an old envelop slit open to form a broad sheet of paper. These scraps are stored in a biscuit tin until the thread is complete, then typed up. I try to treat that stage as a final draft, but I know I will spend another six weeks or so revising. (The revisions are usually about losing weight.)
I don’t write in sequence. Very often, I will try out two or three key scenes first to see if the tensions and aspirations really work. If those crucial scenes are flawed, it’s useless trying to correct them. The idea doesn’t work, and that’s that. (For me. Different for others, no doubt.)
My objective is to transfer “a sense of things” from my head to the page. I ask myself, ‘Is this conversation or scene, or chase along the pavements, or interruption by an old man with an umbrella, or feeling of guilt, or sense of comfort when you get into a warm car – what I meant it to be?’ So, for me, the judgement is not ‘Is this good?’ but ‘Have I got it right?’ Now, many people – many better writers – will argue with that approach, and I can see how it may be only one aspect of a writer’s task. But that’s where I am.
What was the toughest/best review you have ever had?
Reviewers have been rather kind so far, and some have been made flattering comments that, frankly, I don’t think I can live up to. And, on the other hand, those who have not liked my books have chosen not to publish a review. (Thank you.)
I cannot say that I enjoy the publishing process. I find the period immediately prior to publication quite nervy. When my second novel was published, the time between the review copies being sent out and the book being available was really difficult. At one stage, after I had stopped the car so that I could be poorly by the roadside, I decided that I didn’t have to put myself through this and wouldn’t write again. (That didn’t last long.)
I know authors who have been very hurt by reviews and I’m sure I would feel just the same. However, I am aware of my limitations as a writer. We’re talking lightweight crime fiction here; there’s no attempt at literature. If a reviewer I had learned to trust made some bad comments, then I certainly would pay attention Also, I listen very carefully to my readers. I am always conscious that the serious followers (who buy two or three copies of each release and go after collectors’ items) have spent significant amounts of money on my work; so, whose series is it? I think they do have a say in how the saga should develop, and this may be why the books have become a little more comic with time. I really enjoy the interaction with readers. My books are set between 1926 and 1968 and the attention to detail can become something of a game. (Do you know how many king-size cigarettes were on the UK market in 1963? The discussion continues!) One reader definitely knows the chronology of the series better than I do; he was amused to receive my email checking when two characters had their love affair in the 1950s. (Laziness on my part!)
Do you have a favourite character from your books?
In the Timberdick Mysteries, I am fond of my female lead, and I find it easy to get into the head of the fed-up policeman. But I guess I approach the stories as something of a spectator and that puts me on a level with the minor characters that re-appear throughout the sequence of books; they don’t say much but they carry the history of my make-believe world. They are the people I really identify with. Some reviewers have commented on my sense of place – and, early on, two separate newspaper features suggested that the city was almost like a character itself - so, yes, I do identify with the backstreets, alleys and pubs where my puppets have to live.
In Peggy Pinch, my latest book? Well, the book wouldn’t work at all without the cat We got on well together, me and the cat, and she was that rare thing – a character that does as she’s told.
You know, characters really come alive. I have conversations with them and they respond according to their personalities. I used to parody one of these conversations when I gave talks to groups but it got too embarrassing!
How do you come up with the Title for your books?
Titles? My wife is quite good at matching a title to the book. For example, she chose ‘The Parish of Frayed Ends’ and ‘Piggy Tucker’s Poison’. I was stubborn over ‘Liking Good Jazz’ and she still says that it doesn’t work. I have found that people who read through a mss (ante-natal, so to speak) are very little help with titles, although they are very important is other ways.
What is your favourite book?
This changes so much. Cyril Hare is my favourite detective writer. (I prefer his novels, although his short stories probably have a better reputation.) I have found Freeman Wills Croft to be a reliable read. I also like Beryl Symons, when she writes about murder rather than history. In other moods, I read C P Snow, J B Priestley and William Hazlitt. I like the country books written by John Buchan’s son. (Recently, I found a review of one of his books in a contemporary copy of Punch. It said that the book was badly written. So, that says all I know!) From a collecting point of view, I go for Ray Chandler (English firsts, mainly) and books about Portsmouth.
What do you do to unwind and relax?
Well, I read, write, buy and sell books. But I enjoy making lists and compiling catalogues of anything at all. I have been indexing my jazz collection for over 30 years and feel very sure that I have nearly worked out how I want to do it! Compiling a catalogue of my library is a similar long-term project. I have realised that I really need two catalogues for the main collection and a series of lists for the rest of my books. It is some amusement to my friends that I transferred the written catalogue to a database, only to return it to a card index (in pencil) again. (Then, of course, photographs ought to be put in order and written down.) Some people say that I can become quite boring about all this.
I like to listen to New York Jazz (1926-33) and most blues music. Also like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
My website www.bookcabin.co.uk contains details of my books and a blog. My facebook page is Malcolm Noble’s TImberdick Mysteries.